Written by Sarah Prager and reviewed by Dr. Vicki Schafer, Licensed Psychologist, with additional specialized training to facilitate work with individuals and couples who are experiencing infertility, pregnancy loss, and assisted reproduction (including using donor gametes and gestational surrogacy).
When my wife and I began trying to conceive, I was immediately sucked into the all-consuming world of “TTC” (trying to conceive) forums, peeing on sticks, and wondering if every hankering for a pickle was a very early pregnancy craving. It’s easy to become obsessive when you’re working on creating the biggest transition of your life and it feels like your success depends on your online research skills. If I take this vitamin, will I up my chances of conception by one percent this month? If I lay for 30 minutes with my legs up afterwards, is that better than 15 minutes? Is it my fault?
The mental health toll of trying to conceive can be heavy and often invisible to anyone outside of the couple going through it. The intensity of the unique experience is often lived out in total secrecy, making it all the more arduous. All the while, you have no idea how it will turn out. There is no crystal ball showing you that if you keep going you’ll end up with the baby you crave or that it will take six months or six years. Every month without a positive test can feel like a loss, a failure.
“It’s just a cyclical battle of disappointment,” describes Deze, a woman in her early 30s who recently moved from Iowa to Louisiana. “There’s very little you can do about it, but there’s a lot you can try to do about it,” she told me over the phone. Through countless hours scouring TTC forums, “people talk about ‘oh, you can take this vitamin cocktail, it worked for me,’ or ‘oh, you can drink this tea, you can pray this way, you can take these tests, you just have to tilt your pelvis this way after the baby dance.’ There’s a lot of things that people do that make you feel like you might have some control. It gives you hope because if it worked for this person maybe it’ll work for me. But it’s a false hope. You fail two weeks later, you go through a week of grieving your hopes, sitting with your sadness, processing what it means to your self-worth, and then after a week or so later you start researching again and building up your hope, ramping up your motivation to go through it again just to get let down again two to three weeks later. It’s not healthy.”
Deze has gone through this cycle dozens of times since she got married in 2017 and it’s left a mark. Since then, she’s experienced eight confirmed pregnancy losses and lost a fallopian tube. It’s led to anxiety and, ultimately, a breakdown. She started blogging to process everything and went to therapy and started medication for anxiety, too. Meanwhile, she and her husband are still fielding frequent “when are we getting a baby?” questions from their family members.
As both a first-generation woman of Nigerian descent and a woman living in the Midwest, Deze experiences the cultural pressure of her identity as a woman and wife being tied up with her ability to bear a child. Dawn Meyers, a 56-year-old business coach in San Diego, remembers that pressure like it was yesterday.
“I felt like I had a scarlet letter on my forehead, like everybody knew, ‘Oh, she can't conceive,’” Myers recalled to me over Zoom about “the most stressful time of her life” thirty-five years ago. She felt so guilty she told her husband he should leave her for someone who could give him children. “With every negative pregnancy test it became more of an anchor around my neck.” After five years of fertility treatments,Myers and her husband decided to stop trying and that’s when their two sons came into their lives within six months of each other—one by adoption and one by birth.
Both of these women, like many TTC people, know what it’s like to cry after someone else’s baby shower or pregnancy announcement, even if you’re happy for them. Yet, a top piece of advice from both of them is not to avoid the ones you love through this time.
“At some point we're going to be on the other side of this trying-to-conceive battle and you don't want to look back and realize that you either neglected your relationships or missed important events or important milestones. That you didn’t really live life because you're waiting for something to happen.”
Myers says that we’ve come a long way in talking about this taboo topic since the time she was going through her infertility journey and what she wished for most was someone to talk to, a group to connect with. That’s now available today, especially online. Deze agrees that sharing with others helps, and they both recommend professional therapy for those on this journey.
“I don’t want those negative feelings to hold me back from experiencing the richness and joy of life, even with this going on,” Deze reflects. For now, she and her husband are taking a break from trying to conceive for her mental health.
If you’re currently going through this, you’re far from alone, no matter how isolating it may feel. Reach out for help as much as you can, from talking about it with friends or a support group to possibly seeking out a therapist or psychiatrist if needed. This is a tough journey that touches on very personal issues like identity, self-worth, and body image and you deserve support.